A Grade II listed home in Attleborough is in the running to be crowned Britain's 'Best Loved' private building after a family of four moved from Cambridgeshire to Norfolk to renovate it.

The Thatch has just been shortlisted for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings’ (SPAB) ‘Best Loved’ award, which celebrates the regular care and maintenance to old buildings, and is one of just four private buildings shortlisted from across the country and the only one in East Anglia.

The property is essentially a Tudor farmhouse, and once occupied a much bigger site of around 75 acres, which stretched as far as the train station and railway line and over to Gaymers Meadow.

Today, its plot is smaller but still impressive; it sits back from the road and has a sprawling garden, boasting a mellow yellow colourwash, and inside it has an almost museum-like quality to it, with areas of interest everywhere you look – many of which Hannah Nairn and her husband, Ben, have painstakingly restored, along with the help of their two sons, Beren and Torin.

But when the family bought the property around two years ago, it was a little worse for wear.

It had been lived in – and loved – by the couple before them before standing empty and neglected for a number of years. The real problems were structural, Hannah says, which she believes contributed to its previous sales falling through.

The family had been tempted by the home before, even travelling from their then-home in Cambridgeshire to have a look around. When they got there, they were told it was no longer available. “We sat in the café on the high street thinking it had looked like it could be really interesting,” Hannah says, describing their disappointment.

After Christmas they rang up the estate agent and asked again. As it turned out, the earlier, pre-Christmas sale had fallen through.

When the family did eventually view the property for the first time, Hannah says it ticked a lot of boxes. “We wanted a project, although possibly not on this scale. We just walked in and thought ‘wow, this is amazing, it’s lovely, we’ll go for it.’

“It was in our price range, as well. It was up for about £340,000 or something, and of course it was attracting people that could afford £300,000-£400,000, but they couldn’t afford to do anything with it when they bought it so they were targeting completely the wrong market, which is partly why I think it took so long to sell.

“Everything just came together, and we were very lucky that we managed to get it for that sort of price – and it was a realistic price. I think a lot of people massively overpay for properties, not realising how much it costs to sort them out.”

The work it required was extensive. “It had all been cement rendered on the outside, which had caused the frame to rot,” explains Hannah. “We had to strip all that off, repair the frame and re-thatch it because the thatch was rotten – which you’d expect, anyway.”

The internal wiring was “treacherous”, the plumbing “very primitive” and the wattle and daub walls covered in gypsum plaster – “again, the worst thing you can have on a timber frame.” It’s things like that which caused a lot of problems without them realising it.

They discovered that the property had been built in about the 1550s, Hannah says. “We don’t know whether the site was occupied before then because seemingly there was a Saxon fort, one of four, around Attleborough. It’s mentioned in various texts – one of them by a monk at Thetford, who was writing about the area – so in theory the site could have been occupied for about a thousand years, but we don’t know what was on it in the 500 years in between.”

Hannah says they think it was partly burned down in the 1640s, because a lot of the upper timbers date from then. “Something must have happened that was fairly dramatic,” she says, “but it escaped the fire of 1558. It didn’t look like it was very well looked after in the 19th or early 20th century. It was auctioned off several times.”

Although they’ve looked at censuses and spoken to local heritage groups, Hannah says she’d still love to know more about the history of the house. She suspects it could have even been built as a hall house, owing to some of its architectural features which are thought to date back to the 1400s – although she admits that many of them contradict each other and there’s a lot of guesswork involved. Not to mention that, after moving in, there were more urgent matters to attend to – like making the home habitable and safe.

The family did a lot of the work themselves. Hannah’s husband, Ben, is a former chartered surveyor and originally hails from Norfolk. He had always been interested in properties and had even completed a course at Orchard Barn in Suffolk, to learn about timber framing and lime plastering.

This, along with Hannah’s “gung ho” approach to DIY made the whole thing seem a bit less daunting. “We did all the most immediate stuff when we first moved in, just so other people could do their jobs and we could carry on with the aesthetic. “We’ve learned how to lime plaster ourselves because getting people to do it costs a fortune,” she says.

They’ve also made their own chalk paint, which she says works out at around 10p a litre, created new oak window frames and installed new leaded lights, which Hannah made in the converted barn – now a workshop – in the garden.

Other work has included building a new en suite in one of the former bedrooms, installing an oak post to reinforce a wobbly beam and uncovering and reinstating some of the property’s historic windows, which makes the space a lot less gloomy.

Where possible, they’ve used salvaged materials – much of which has come from local people, or friends they’ve known – and they have found advice along the way.

“The internet is amazing and if you start moving in the right circles and join different organisations, people are brilliant at sharing knowledge,” Hannah says.

Because the property is listed, there were further complications – particularly during Covid, when lockdowns meant it was difficult to get people out on site visits. “We weren’t doing anything radical or controversial, so that was fortunate,” says Hannah, and it meant they were invited to do a retrospective application for some of the work.

She says they have spent around £250,000 on the property so far, but that doesn’t account for the time and the effort the restoration has involved. She says the four of them worked “like dogs” over lockdown. “We just did a huge amount of reading up on it and thought ‘let’s go for it, why not’? And I am so pleased we did.

“It’s been such a fascinating and educational project. We’ve learnt so much and the boys [aged 15 and 19] have learnt a huge amount working on this place, because everyone has to just be able to do everything, as and when it’s needed.”

Hannah jokes that she’s aged 30 years since the renovations started. “It’s just been back-breaking,” she says. “But it does worry me because when we come to the end of the works, I do wonder what on earth I’m going to do.

“Every day I’m doing something related to the house – there’s always some mission or project – and having to replace that with something as meaningful is going to be quite difficult.”

She says they don’t intend to ever leave the property and are amazed to have been shortlisted for the SPAB award. “Though the society is very old, it’s a new award. This is the first year they’ve run it.

“I was amazed that we were shortlisted. We’re going to go off to the ceremony in London,” which is held on November 3, she says. “They’ve got people from all over the country and this is the only one for East Anglia, so it could be interesting to see what happens. It would just be interesting to meet likeminded people, who have been involved in the same sort of thing.”

To vote for The Thatch, visit www.spab.org.uk/content/vote-your-best-loved-building

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